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New Europe

Day Ninety-eight: Gdansk

Gdańsk 
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Gdańsk: the old city has plenty of new life.
Michael Palin - New EuropeLech Walesa may no longer have much to do with the shipyards that shaped his career, but he does still live in Gdansk and he has agreed to meet and talk. He has an office just round the corner from our hotel. Appropriately perhaps, the short walk along the canal passes beneath a crane as iconic as the green monsters that rise above the shipyards. The Gdansk Crane, with its original timber housing and mechanism largely intact, is the biggest and oldest in Europe. Built in the days when Gdansk was Danzig, one of the alliance of trading cities of the Baltic and the North Sea known as the Hanseatic League, it stands opposite three long, rather elegant granaries which, like the crane, date from the fifteenth century.

This formidable cluster of buildings provide a taster for what hits you as you walk through the Green Gate (Brama Zielona) and into the Main Town. Long Market (Dlugi Targ) and Long Street (Ulica Dlugi), stretching ahead in a gently curving line, must be one of the finest streetscapes in Europe. Dominated by a towering red-brick town hall and lined with houses of all styles from classical to Dutch gabled to Rococo, it is a testimony to the wealth, good taste and richly diverse influences of European traders. A testimony, too, to the skill of twentieth-century Polish builders, architects and craftsmen who have almost totally rebuilt this centuries-old quarter after its destruction in the Second World War.

Above the Green Gate arch is a handsome former royal residence in Dutch Baroque style, now divided up into various living spaces. In one of them, off an entrance shared with Radio Gdansk, the Nobel Prize-winning founder of Solidarity and one-time President of Poland has a set of offices provided free of charge by the city.

It's airy and spacious with views out over the old docks on one side and on the other the 260-foot town hall tower and the bustle of Long Market. The floors are of exposed oak wood and the furniture is functional, modern and quite bland. The chair behind his desk has a complicated system of cables trailing from it, which hint at orthopaedic problems.

Apart from a big framed map of old Poland most of the walls are taken up with religious images, including crucifixes and a number of photos of Lech with Pope John Paul. On a coffee table are indications of more secular successes: an advert for his wife Danuta's Walesa Pasta and a Globe Award from Nestlé and General Mills for Walesa's 'contribution to the development of the free market economy and widening the boundaries of the free world'. Lech also has some roses named after him, his assistant tells us helpfully.

Everything seems to suggest that there is a substantial Walesa industry centred here, and this is confirmed by the arrival of the chief executive, the man himself. He may be over an hour late but he comes in like a whirlwind, heading straight for his desk, issuing orders as he goes. With his big, mournful grey moustache, greying hair and neat air force-blue suit, he looks like a busy headmaster. Apart from the sandals.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-eight: Gdansk
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Gdańsk
  • Book page no: 231

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